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DSA: A safeguard or a threat?

17 April 2023

Ziaur Rahman :
Nowadays, a lot of talks, arguments and controversies are going on centering the use of cyber security laws and digital rights. The debate over the use of cyber laws, especially the Digital Security Act (DSA), 2018 does not seem to end, rather it become stronger day by day.
The issue has become a talk of the town in recent days with arrest of a journalist of a leading vernacular daily following publishing of a report that criticized the rising food prices. The journalist, Shamsuddin Shams, has been released two days after his arrest but the issue remains at the center of the debate.
The act, which human rights advocates have long criticised for its purposefully broad application and ambiguous language intended to silence dissent, is once again at the centre of the uproar following custodian death of a government employee in Rajshahi and arrest of the journalist.
Since enactment in parliament in September 2018, the law has been witnessing tough debates over its use and implications both inside and outside the parliament as well as in print, electronic and social media. It has also become an issue of public discussions in recent days. Even before the law was passed by the parliament, human rights activists and organizations criticized it as a threat to freedom of expression.
The law, which went into effect on October 8, 2018, was enacted with a view to providing cyber security to the citizens, but its wide scope and vague provisions are allegedly being exploited for more despicable purposes. According to Human rights defenders, online activists, writers and journalists, the government is allegedly using the security law to crack down on its critics and drive out the online dissidents.
"The government has formulated the act to combat the growing crimes that are affecting public and private lives and properties. But Instead of being a safeguard, it has turned into a repressive law," said researcher and human rights activist Rezaur Rahman Lenin while addressing  an advocacy campaign on digital rights in Dhaka.
Experts, human rights activists, Journalists and writers who attended the advocacy campaign on "Cyberspace, Cyber laws and Digital rights" expressed their concern over frequent use of the law against journalists, writers and human rights activists. The DSA, they observed, has substantively curtailed freedoms of expression, thought and the media.
News Network, one of the country's leading media NGO, organized the advocacy campaign on "Cyberspace, Cyber laws and Digital rights" in cooperation with EngageMedia and Internews. Researcher, lawyer and human rights activist Rezaur Rahman Lenin attended the program as the keynote speakers.
Quoting constitutional provisions Lenin said that any law that infringes on human rights must be overturned. "And most of the DSA sections are incompatible with that clause and are therefore unconstitutional," said Lenin, who is also a lawyer, demanding scrapping of the Digital Security Act, 2018.
The DSA is not the first law to curb online freedom of expression in Bangladesh. It was preceded by the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act 2006 which was used to harass human rights activists, freethinkers, journalists, writers and online activists. Although the controversial Section 57 of ICT Act has been repealed, it has been replaced in different sections of the Digital Security Act in a new and harsher way.  Consequently, the new law presents more restrictive approach towards freedom of expression in its wordings and application than the former one.
Even though the purpose of the law was to ensure digital security and prevent crimes committed on digital platforms. But it goes much beyond its defined scope and ventures into the territory of media and journalism. According to Editor's Council, a platform of editors of national dailies, the law goes against the very nature and practice of independent journalism that stands to protect people's right to know and exposes abuse of power and corruption.
The Act gives unlimited power to the police to enter premises, search offices, bodily search persons, seize computers, computer networks, servers, and everything related to the digital platforms. According to the Act, the police can arrest anybody on suspicion without warrant and do not need any approval of any authorities.
The DSA is not only limited to criminal charges and detentions but also hinders implementation of many fundamental rights, including freedom of movement, freedom of press and thought. There are certain provisions in the law i.e. section number 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32, 43, and 53 which are against the spirit of people's democracy and freedom. A journalist's duties and responsibilities are to gather information and to present it in an accurate manner. But the section 25, 28, 29, 31 and 32 of the law directly affect and apparently make journalists' duties and responsibilities impossible.
 Arguably, one of the most dangerous provisions of the DSA is Section 32, which prescribes 14 years in jail or Tk 20 lakh fine or both on the charge of spying, under the Official Secrets Act, if anyone illegally enters the offices of government, semi-government and autonomous bodies to gather information and uses electronic device to record something secretly. If that person commits the crime again, he or she will face life imprisonment or a maximum fine of Tk 1 crore or both.
As journalist, one has to take photos, videos or collect information, data and documents delicately, often secretly to reveal truth but the path is now almost closed as such responsibility has become a crime under the new law. Under these circumstances, no sources would dare to provide documents on corruptions.  
Section 25 of the DSA prescribes a punishment of three  years' imprisonment or Tk. 3 lakhs or both for the use of digital platforms for sending, publishing, or broadcasting any offensive, false or intimidating information, which annoys, insults, humiliates or denigrates a person or which tarnishes the image of the nation.
Indeed this act will make it impossible to publish any negative report about any corrupt person or institution as it will 'irritate', 'embarrass' or 'humiliate' the corrupt one. Eventually it will provide indirect indemnity to corruption and abuse of power.
By this time, the Digital Security Act has created an atmosphere of fear among reporters, compelling them to practise self-censorship instead of free journalism. According to newspaper owners' association, reporters in districts could not write reports against corruption for fear of prosecution and attacks, many of them cannot even stay in their areas. Under this situation, practicing fair and objective journalism is not possible if there exists self-censorship.
Not only the mainstream journalists, online journalists and everyday internet users sometimes face harassment, intimidation and violence and reports of abduction and torture in detention in relation to critical social media activities emerged in recent years. Individuals are frequently penalized for online activities that are protected under international human rights standards.
According to freedom of expression organization Article 19, government has increasingly turned to the DSA to harass, charge, and arrest people for their online and offline speech.  
Rezaur Rahman Lenin, also a legal expert, presented a research work where he analyzed the impact of cyber laws and their effects on digital rights. Lenin noted a total of 1,129 cases were filed under the DSA from October 9, 2018, to August 2022. Of them, he said 301 cases were filed against politicians while 280 were against journalists and 157 against teachers and students.
He pointed out that most of the people accused in the cases suffered jail for a long time before the start of the trial process. "Most people arrested in the DSA cases were denied bail at the early stage. Some people even had to stay in jail for a year to get bail in DSA cases," he said.
Though the abuse of the DSA is growing alarmingly, he said the government is not serious about amending this law. Besides, amending the law alone will not suffice to deal with the issues it raises. He also focused on internet freedom and urged government not to exercise unnecessary state level block, censorship and content filtering.
The internet is considered as one of the most important sources of freedom of speech and expression through mass media including digital, electronic, traditional and social media. It has empowered people to express their views, opinions and beliefs. But the advantages in media industry is being impaired greatly nowadays mainly due to poor infrastructure, low internet freedom and regulatory environment.

(The writer is a senior journalist.)

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